Feeding their fears

Let's pay attention to the nutritional content of the media images our kids consume

Toronto Sun
August 3, 2003
By Joanne Richard

Cartoon violence on TV -- so, what's the big deal? You saw Wile E. Coyote and Yosemite Sam blow themselves up on Saturday morning cartoons, and you turned out fine, right? Well, you'd better think again.

"Feeding children a steady diet of media images of violent, hyped-up psychopaths is having a detrimental impact on some children," says Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a leading child psychiatrist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. "Parents pay a great deal of attention to the nutritional content of a child's breakfast, but what about the nutritional content of the media images they're consuming?"

Lefebvre is encountering the fallout first-hand -- not only is she seeing young patients for aggressive behaviour resulting from viewing media violence, including cartoons, she is also treating children traumatized by disturbing TV images.

"Some, not all, but some kids can be emotionally traumatized by movies such as the Sixth Sense and Armageddon; I have a patient who has not slept alone for 15 months since watching the Sixth Sense; another two who had psychotic breakdowns triggered by seeing the Sixth Sense, while a teenager developed panic attacks after seeing Armageddon -- although the latter has now recovered."

Vulnerability

Lefebvre stresses there are definitely individual variations in vulnerability to violent media images, but young children are especially sensitive and likely to be affected negatively by viewing violence because they can't distinguish between reality and fantasy so they believe and personalize everything they see. "Also likely to be affected are children who are anxious to start with, children who have been traumatized in the past (physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, burns) and children with a tenuous hold on reality."

The torrent of glorified and gratuitous violence and disturbing images being devoured by this integrated media generation is alarming, she says, and there's no abatement in sight in this increasingly unregulated world.

"Violence sells and hooks viewers, that's why it keeps increasing on TV, in movies, in games -- it's even in the Raptors' logo," says Lefebvre.

According to Jane Tallim, of Media Awareness Network, an educational organization, "research has shown that media violence has not just increased in quantity; it has also become much more graphic, much more sexual and much more sadistic."

"Thanks to modern technology and special effects, the violence is a lot more realistic than before," says Lefebvre.

And it's not just restricted to prime time. Although violence in cartoons has always existed, says Lefebvre, "notice that in the earliest cartoons, such as Tweetie, the 'good guys,' like Tweetie, used wits and distraction techniques, only resorting to violence when all else failed, but now in Ninja Turtles and Pokemon violence is the first choice for both 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' "

Violence as a problem-solving tool is repeatedly presented as justifiable, natural and inevitable, says Lefebvre, adding that "violence is also often coupled with humour, like in Home Alone, to make it okay. This is a very slippery slope."

Studies show that TV shows average 40 acts of violence per hour and that the average child sees 12,000 violent acts on television annually, including many depictions of murder and rape.

Larger trend

Increased TV and movie violence is part of a larger trend, report experts. There is a subculture of violence, degradation and cruelty that permeates most entertainment media consumed by our youth, says Tallim, including on the Web, in music videos and video games, as well as music lyrics filled with profanity and hate.

Extremely disturbing is the ultra-violent content on the Internet, including the gore sites, which feature photos of real torture and mutilation victims, says Cathy Wing, an Internet and media education specialist at Media Awareness Network. "There's a whole culture of cruelty being perpetrated by teens."

And add to the plethora of questionable content, the latest reality TV craze: "We may be raising a generation of voyeurs whose greatest pleasure is watching the defeats of others and who think it's right for the most manipulative, ruthless or hypocritical person to win," says Lefebvre.

"Think about the message programs such as Survivor and The Weakest Link are giving your kids: Do you really want them to grow up thinking it's okay to dispose of the weakest, most vulnerable individuals in their society?"

She says studies indicate significant exposure to violent images has a cumulative effect: Besides promoting increased aggressive behaviour in some children and adolescents, it desensitizes them to violence, and makes them believe that the world is a "meaner and scarier" place where they have to defend themselves.

"Kids start accepting violence as a norm and no longer hesitate to use it themselves or bother to defend a classmate who is bullied," says Lefebvre.

"The more terrorist attacks and wars we watch on CNN, the more books and movies will come out and capitalize on these, the more exposure kids will have, then the more violent our society becomes and the whole cycle repeats itself ..."

According to Tallim, the youth market is a highly lucrative demographic and the lifeblood of the movie industry.

A 2001 report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reveals U.S. media corporations are "actively marketing violent entertainment to children and teens. The study showed that 80% of R-rated movies, 70% of restricted video games, and 100% of music with 'explicit content' warning labels were being marketed to kids under 17," reports Tallim.

Shows that the Motion Picture Association of America would once have rated R are now being rated as PG-13, in order to increase box-office profits and rental sales, she says.

Meanwhile, the debate over media effect on children is ongoing and, while a direct cause and effect link is difficult to establish, there is a growing consensus that children are negatively impacted by media violence -- although author Jonathan Freedman would disagree.

Freedman, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, maintains that "the scientific evidence simply does not show that watching violence either produces violence in people, or desensitizes them to it."

Challenge

In his book Media Violence And its Effect on Aggression (University of Toronto Press), Freedman challenges accepted norms in media studies and psychology based on his review of all studies and concludes violence in movies and on TV does not create violent viewers.

Well, the fact remains that TV is an inescapable part of modern culture and children are consuming more entertainment media than ever before. It's become an increasingly complex and problematic pastime, and managing media content definitely poses a big challenge for parents.

"Because of the changing media landscape and how children are receiving content, it's a lot harder for parents to monitor," says media specialist Wing.

"It can be overwhelming. Parents can't be there all of the time, but involvement and communication is key."

Visit www.media-awareness .ca to learn more about media and children.